Work stress, school stress, family stress: it can all add up to take a serious toll on your emotional and physical well-being. If you’re suffering from mental symptoms like irritability, anxiety, or depression, or physical ones like headache, sleeplessness, or stomach pains, it’s time for you to get to the root of what’s causing you stress and to make changes to manage your responses.
Because stress isn’t all in your head – there are complex physical reactions also going on, which can have a serious effect on your overall physical health.
The Brain-Body Connection
In addition to processing emotional responses to stress such as fear and anxiety, your brain is also central to kicking off all of your body’s physical manifestations of stress. Here’s just a snapshot of the complex chain of events that takes place in your body when your brain begins to respond to stress:
Hormones: Your adrenal (hormonal) system releases two “fight or flight” hormones to give your body a quick energy boost. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, while cortisol triggers an increase of glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream. While both of these responses can be beneficial in the short term when you need to react quickly, over time they can be detrimental and even dangerous.
Heart and blood: Thanks to the flood of adrenaline, your heart pumps faster and your blood vessels constrict – which raises your blood pressure, increasing your risk of stroke or heart attack.
Breathing: During a stress response, you breathe faster to distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body. For people with pre-existing respiratory issues like asthma or emphysema, this can make breathing even more difficult.
Blood sugar levels: The increased sugar production caused by the cortisol can give you a valuable short-term energy boost, but if your sugar levels remain high it may be more than your body can process and can ultimately lead to type 2 diabetes.
Digestion: Increased production of stomach acid can cause heartburn and acid reflux, and can exacerbate existing stomach ulcers. Other common stress-related digestive complaints include diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and stomach ache.
Muscles: Your muscles tense to keep you safe from injury, which over time can cause headaches, back pain, shoulder pain, and body aches.
Behavior: Dealing with chronic stress can lead to poor behavioral choices like over- or under-eating, alcohol or drug abuse, self-harm, social withdrawal, and more.
Immunity: In the short term, stress actually stimulates your immune system to help you fight off infections and heal wounds. But in the long term, stress hormones will weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to viruses like flu, colds, and other infections.
When the stress-causing event is over, your brain should give the all-clear signal for all of your body’s systems to go back to normal. But if that message isn’t received, or if the stressful situation doesn’t go away, the stress response will continue.
Managing Your Stress
So it’s not just about feeling “stressed out” – with all these physical reactions putting your long-term health at risk, it’s vital that you find ways to manage your stress levels. It of course varies by individual, but some common stress management techniques include:
- Get regular exercise
- Practice relaxation techniques – yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, etc.
- Spend time with loved ones
- Talk about your feelings with a trusted friend or family member
- Make time for hobbies like reading or playing a musical instrument
- Get plenty of sleep, ideally 8 hours per night
- Eat a balanced diet
- Avoid substances like tobacco, alcohol and caffeine
- Limit screen time (television, internet, video games, etc.)
If you’re practicing stress management strategies but still suffering from the mental and physical symptoms of stress, it might be time to seek professional help. A counselor or therapist can help you identify the sources of your stress and arm you with coping techniques specific to your situation – but you might also want to see your regular doctor to ensure that your physical symptoms aren’t being caused by something more serious like a hormonal imbalance or heart condition.
If you find yourself suffering from acute physical symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea, jaw or back pain, or a radiating pain down your shoulder and arm, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention, as these may be the warning signs of a heart attack.
Whatever the source of your stress, try to remember that even if you can’t control the situation the most important thing is to try to control your reaction to it. Both your mental and physical well-being depend on it!